How reliable is medieval music iconography? Part 1/3: Understanding medieval art

Medieval art or iconography is a rich resource for the researcher of medieval musical instruments, giving information about the physical features of gitterns, citoles, lutes, fiddles, and so on, the extent of their popularity and geographical reach, and design changes over time.

However, common features of medieval art, such as size distortion and perspective distortion, mean that an individual instrument cannot be reconstructed from the page, painting or sculpture uncritically. This has led some commentators to suggest that medieval art is wholly defective and unreliable for instrument makers and players.

Using examples from iconography, I aim to show that illustrations of medieval instruments yield valuable and practically applicable data if we have a considered and historically informed approach.

This article, the first of three, discusses:

the debate about representation and idolatry in the early church, and how this affected art;
how symbolism is fundamental to representation and meaning in medieval art;
how and why proportion in medieval art is often symbolic rather than naturalistic;
nonetheless, the case for realism in medieval art, that it gives important real-world information, with examples from farming and ornithology;
and that this real-world information extends to our knowledge of medieval instruments, with examples.

We begin with a video of medieval instruments – bray lute, citole, gittern, harp and bray harp – playing the three voice polyphonic Mariam Matrem Virginem attolite from El Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (The Red Book of Montserrat), 1396-99, with a commentary of instrument information. Further information about these instruments, gleaned from iconography, is summarised in this article.

Having made the case for the value of iconography in this first article, the second article continues by suggesting 10 principles for gaining musical instrument information from medieval art. These principles are then tested in the third and final article by the recreation of a gittern painted by Simone Martini in 1312-18.

Click the picture to play the video, which opens in a new window.
Mariam Matrem Virginem attolite (Extol Mary, the Virgin Mother) from
El Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (The Red Book of Montserrat), 1396-99.
Vital information about the instruments in this video – bray lute, citole,
harp, bray harp, gittern – is gleaned from iconography, as the article below explains.

Is medieval iconography a reliable representation of reality?

Iconography is the word for representations or images in art, and also the word for the study of those images. For researchers of the musical instruments of the medieval period, and for luthiers who recreate those instruments, a fundamental question about iconography must be answered: are medieval images reliable representations of reality?   

It seems like a straightforward question, but we must be very clear about what we are asking, for art is never a simple replication of the real. The broad brushstrokes of the impressionists, the angular lines of cubism, the dream-like quality of surrealism, and the spare outlines and exaggerated features of cartoons, all point to the same fact: art is a medium, an interpretation, a reconstruction. Art takes elements of what we recognise from reality (excepting abstract art) and interprets them with a particular purpose, a conscious method, and a recognisable style. It is no less so for medieval art.

Indeed, the difference between art and reality is so foundational, so expected, that there has to be a special word for art that looks indistinct from the thing it portrays: photorealism. But even the art of photography has a purpose, a method, and a style. The camera lens points this way and not that, the image is framed to tell a particular story and create a conscious impression, the lighting and the colours manipulated to the artist’s purpose. And lens distortion means that a photograph cannot necessarily be relied upon even to replicate the fine measurements of reality.

So already we see that the question, ‘are medieval images reliable representations of reality?’, must be viewed through an understanding of the relationship between art and reality, what art is and is not intended to convey. In medieval Christendom, there was a particular understanding of the relationship between the image and the real.

On the right is a detail from folio 58r of the Decretals of Gregory IX, also known as the Smithfield Decretals, a French manuscript created 1275–1325 (British Library Royal 10 E IV). We see a taborer (player of pipe and tabor) and a double duct flute (proto-recorder) player, performing music to accompany a tumbler (professional acrobat). The visual features are typical of art in medieval manuscripts:

The figures are two-dimensional, on the flat plane, with little or no sense of perspective.
There is some sense of shading and colour tones, for example, in the folds of the tumbler’s and duct flute player’s clothes and the different colours in the complexions of their faces, but the effect is created in a highly formalised, simplified and stylised way.
While each human figure is different, with physical features which separate one from the other, as in life, the figures themselves are simplified, distinct from life.
• Some proportions are exaggerated: the end of taborer’s pipe, the duct flute player’s right hand, the flutes, and the swords.

(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

We see perspective and size distortion again in the citole players above. The example on the left, from the Tabernacle of Saint Savin, Hautes-Pyrénées, France, 1325, illustrates the purpose of medieval perspective distortion: the wedge neck and thumb-hole, important features of the citole, are shown in art in a way that could not be seen from this vantage point in reality. There is no perspective distortion in the citole on the right, from The Ruskin Hours, France, c. 1300 (Ms Ludwig IX 3, folio 92v, Getty Museum, Los Angeles), but there is size distortion: the trefoil (end projection) is oversize, but the bridge and tuning pegs are not shown at all. In any individual case, missing details may be due to the limitation of the artist; or it may be that the artist is bringing out the most typical and recognisable features; or it may be a product of being a tiny detail on a manuscript page.

For the purpose of understanding medieval instruments, already it is clear that no art simply replicates life: an artist’s role is not to draw a detailed luthier’s plan to make an instrument. But the notion that we should therefore dismiss a millennium of art at one stroke and conclude that it can yield no valuable musical information is, as I will show, demonstrably false.

The style and symbolism of medieval art

Before we can comprehend the real-world information about musical instruments that medieval art can tell us, we must first appreciate medieval art in its own terms by understanding its purpose and cultural context.

The idea that there should be Christian art at all was not settled in the early church: there was conflict and bloodshed over the very concept of representative iconography. The central point of contention was the second of The Bible’s 10 commandments: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” (Exodus 20: 4-5)

Some early Christian leaders, such as Tertullian of Carthage, rhetorician and writer of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and Augustine, hugely influential 4th century Bishop of Hippo Regius, understood this to be a universal prohibition against all representative art. Others, such as the 7th–8th century monk, John of Damascus, argued that, in making art of Jesus, Christians were not making false idols: Christ was the very image of the divine, God the Father made flesh, so iconography of Christ was not idolatry.

In the early church, this debate was one of the fundamental matters of Christian theology. Christian Byzantine Emperor Leo III issued edicts against iconography in worship and went on a campaign of iconoclasm (literally image-breaking) from 726 or 27 to purge icons from every part of the empire, resulting in the spilt blood of those who defended their holy images. Leo tried unsuccessfully to convince Germanos I, Patriarch of Constantinople, of his iconoclastic position. In January 730, Germanos convened a church council to defend icons, so Leo deposed him, replacing him with Anastasios, a Patriarch who would not question the Emperor’s authority. Two successive Popes of Rome, Gregory II (in office 715–31) and Gregory III (731–41) opposed Leo’s iconoclasm. Gregory II summoned councils in Rome to formally declare iconoclasts anathemadevoted to evil – and excommunicated them from the church.

Two sides of a coin from the reign of Leo III, struck 717-720, illustrate the inherent contradictions
of the iconoclast position. One side of the coin has an image of Leo himself: while images of Christ
or saints were considered to break the second commandment, an image of the emperor did not.
Despite the supposed ban on representative images, both sides of the coin have an image
of the cross for Christ atop an orb for eternity, completion and perfection.

Eventually the church settled on the position of the iconographers and iconophiles rather than the iconoclasts: in 787, the Second Council of Nicaea declared that icons have a rightful place in Christian worship. (In the 16th century the Protestant split with Rome led to further waves of iconoclasm in Europe, destroying centuries of irreplaceable art.)

For the iconoclasts in the early church, the issue may not only have been the prohibition in the second commandment. Christian art was stylistically undifferentiated from classical Greek and Roman art, and the symbols of ‘pagan’ worship were used for Christ.

We see this in the two examples below of the Romanesque style of art inherited by medieval Christian iconographers. On the left are two women depicted in a mosaic from Villa Romana, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, 3rd century CE. It shows the same flattened style we observed above in the 13th–14th century Decretals of Gregory IX, in the Tabernacle of Saint Savin, and in The Ruskin Hours, and we will see again below in further medieval examples. On the right is a detail from a floor mosaic in the amphitheatre in the Roman province of Africa Proconsularis, present-day El Djem, Tunisia, north Africa, 2nd century CE. It shows Apollo, national divinity of the Greeks, who was absorbed into the Roman pantheon during the period beginning in the 2nd century BCE when Greece was conquered by Rome. Apollo was the deity of many aspects of life: he was god of the Sun and of light, of the healing of diseases, and of truth and prophecy – divine themes which later characterised Jesus. Apollo took on some aspects of the Greek god Helios, divine personification of the Sun, as we see from the Sun halo – which Christian iconographers also used for Jesus.

It should not be a surprise that Christian artists drew upon the cultural references they knew: syncretism and cultural absorption is not only normal, but inevitable. Below is a striking example of Christian art in the style inherited from classical antiquity, shown in two versions: the first from the mid 6th century when the debate about iconography was raging; the second in the same style from the mid 13th century, when the issue was long settled.

The background to the image is that in 451 CE the Council of Chalcedon stated that Christ is “the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man … of the same substance as the Father according to the Godhead, and of the same substance as us according to manhood … two natures without confusion, change, division, separation”. How could Christ, fully human and fully divine, be depicted in art?

The answer is in the richly symbolic icon below left, from the central roof dome of Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert, painted in the mid 6th century. This is the earliest known rendering of an image which became common in Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic iconography: Christ Pantocrator (or Pantokrator). Christ is Greek for the Hebrew moshiach or mashiach – rendered messiah in English – meaning saviour, and Pantocrator means ruler of all. In this image, shown below left, Christ is vertically split to show his dual nature: Christ the man on the left side, God the Son on the right right from the viewer’s perspective. To further emphasise the artist’s intention, below centre I have reproduced the image of the left side only, mirrored to show Jesus the man, and below right I have mirrored the right side to show Christ the divine Son.

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All other elements of the icon are similarly symbolic. On our left, Christ’s human hand is raised in the gesture of speaking, i.e. speaking the word of God, a form of visual symbolism taken from classical art. On the right, his divine hand holds a copy of the Gospels, signified by the cross which decorates the cover, denoting his incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. Behind his head is a halo, inherited from the Greek deities Helios, personification of the Sun, and Apollo, god of the Sun and light, of the healing of diseases, and of truth and prophecy. The halo signifies holiness, within which Christian artists added the cross of sacrifice and redemption. The background shows heavenly stars in the sky, leading the way for humanity, shown by the earthly dwellings below. The colours, too, are symbolic: blue represents God’s dwelling place, heaven, seen in the light blue sky and the dark blue edge of the halo; gold represents divinity and eternity, seen in the golden stars, golden halo, golden Gospels, the gold inner fabric of Jesus’ clothing, and the golden glow particularly present on the divine half of Jesus’ face. The lack of radiance in Christ’s brown clothes, hair, and eyes represents worldly poverty and renunciation, as seen in monastic clothing. White is for purity and holiness, seen in the pages of the Gospels. The earthly dwellings in the background are a mixture of white and brown, to signify Christ bringing divine light to the world.

We see a version of the same image below left, again representing Christ’s dual nature, with the same symbolic colours. This is Christ Pantocrator in Hagia Sophia, meaning Holy Wisdom, a church in Constantinople (now Istanbul), built in the 6th century under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. This mosaic of Christ dates from c. 1261. Again the original image is on the left; centre and right I have reproduced the mirrored left and right sides of Christ, human and divine, to emphasise the artistic intent.

(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

As these examples show, medieval art sends theological messages through symbolic representation. This is seen again in an illustration of Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus on folio 128r of the De Lisle Psalter (British Library, Arundel MS 83), an Anglo-Norman manuscript of c. 1308–40. The story is from The Gospel of Luke 16: 19-31, in which an unnamed rich man – traditionally given the name Dives, Latin for rich or wealthy – wears expensive clothes and feasts on fine food, while a poor man, Lazarus, lies down at Dives’ gate, longing to eat the food that falls from the rich man’s table, covered with sores which are licked by dogs. They both die. Lazarus is carried by angels to be with Abraham in heaven, while Dives is tormented in the fires of hell. Dives looks up to heaven and begs Abraham for mercy, for release from his suffering. Abraham replies, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.”

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Bottom left, we see that Lazarus has a staff and begging bowl, signifiers of the mendicant, as also seen, for example, on the right in the Rutland Psalter, c. 1260 (British Library, Add MS 62925, folio 47v). Lazarus wears a grey monk’s habit: he has been rejected by this world and so, like a monk who has renounced the world and the flesh, he will receive his reward in heaven. His spirit is carried by bird-winged angels, God’s messengers and inhabitants of heaven on high. The original language of the Old Testament is Hebrew, and the New Testament was originally in Greek. In the middle ages, The Bible was read in Latin translation. The Hebrew word, ruach, the Greek word, pneuma, and the Latin word, spiritus, each have the same three connotations: breath, wind, and spirit. Since breath is spirit, it follows that we see Lazarus’ spirit shown as a small white version of himself emanating as breath or wind from his mouth. Lazarus’ soul or spirit is seen again at the apex in the symbolically-coloured gold, blue and white of heaven, sitting in the lap of Christ, who sits on an orb, symbol of eternity, completion and perfection. Conversely, bottom right, Dives’ spirit is seen extracted by bat-winged demons, Satan’s messengers and inhabitants of hell. Between Lazarus and Dives is another demon, prodding Dives into the open mouth of hell.

The mouth of hell is a common theme in medieval art, part of the visual symbolic lexicon. Above is a scene from folio 24r of the Winchester Psalter, also known as the Psalter of Henry of Blois (British Library, Cotton MS Nero C IV), c. 1150, in which we see the Archangel Gabriel, leader of the heavenly hosts, signified by his spear, accompanying Christ in his harrowing of hell. The harrowing of hell is Christ’s descent into Hades in the time between his crucifixion and resurrection. The souls who died between the creation of Adam and Eve and the time of Christ’s crucifixion could not enter heaven, since Christ had not yet brought salvation: the harrowing of or descent into hell redeems the righteous souls. Thus we see the devil bound in shackles and Christ bringing souls out of hell. Proportion in medieval art is symbolic rather than naturalistic, so large size differentials indicate relative importance or eminence: the Archangel Gabriel and Christ are significantly larger than all other figures, followed in size by the bound Satan and the souls being removed from hell.

The City of God by the aforementioned Saint Augustine, 354–430, was one of the most influential texts of the middle ages. Above is an illustration from its translation into French by Raoul de Presles in 1375–77 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 22913, folio 370r). The mouth of hell appears again, alongside other common symbolic devices. Inside the mouth of hell, the figure with the mirror represents the sin of pride (superbia), and the figure with the jug represents the sin of greed (avaritia). The disproportionately large angel is Saint Michael, also known as the Archangel Michael – proportion again being symbolic rather than naturalistic.

The Archangel Michael is the saint most often seen with scales to weigh the souls of the dead, to count the weight of their good deeds against their sins, and thereby measure their fitness for heaven or hell on Judgement Day. Sometimes we see, as in The City of God illustration, a devil or devils trying to interfere with the scales, and sometimes, as here, an angel pushing in the other direction. The gold and blue colours signify divinity and heavenly eternity respectively, and they are dominant in the De Lisle Psalter Dives and Lazarus depiction, The City of God judgement for sin scene, and countless other medieval images. In The City of God we have an example of gold signifying not only divinity and eternity, but also sinful extravagance in the damned’s crowns and mirror frame.

The image is framed with a gold border, around and above which is foliage. Foliage or greenery in medieval art signifies the shortness of life, recalling the words of Job 14: 1-2, “Man, who is born of woman, is short of days and full of trouble. Like a flower, he comes forth, then withers away; like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure”; and of Isaiah 40: 6-8 (also cited in 1 Peter 1: 24-25), “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall when the breath of the Lord blows on them; indeed, the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” Here we have the shortness of life juxtaposed with the eternity of God’s Judgement, illustrating that medieval Christian art has a purpose: to teach believers how to live a godly life, to remind viewers to avoid sin – pride, greed, and so on – and serve God.

Left: onocentaur from folio 42v of the Smithfield Decretals, 1275–1325.
Right: onocentaur in Beverley Minster, Yorkshire, 1330–90s. Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

Above left, from the Smithfield Decretals with which we began, is a pipe and tabor played by a human/animal hybrid, illustrating another typical aspect of medieval art: the symbolic expressed as the mythical and fantastical. This is a female onocentaur, a hybrid of human and wild ass. Above right is another onocentaur, carved in stone on the south wall of Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The onocentaur was a popular figure in medieval art, and medieval bestiaries explained its symbolic significance: the rational human mind in the upper body combined with the bestial ass in the lower body represents the lustful hypocrite who speaks of doing good but then commits evil. As with so much medieval art, there is a message to the viewer: do not be a hypocrite like the onocentaur, but be consistent in your heart and mind, faithful to God your maker.

The onocentaur of the 14th century Smithfield Decretals additionally has bells on her tail. Bells represent the figure of the fool, reinforcing the foolishness of hypocritical sin. By the 15th century, the bells, the figure of the fool and the pipe and tabor were brought together in the morris dance, a new courtly entertainment which spread to the parishes, so this appears to be an early example of the association, prescient of what was soon to come. (For more on fools, including the fool in the morris dance, click here.)

The case for realism in medieval art

Christian medieval art continued in the vein of the Romanesque style with its vivid colours and simplified figures. In the late 12th century, sculpted figures became more naturalistic and individualised in the new Gothic style. In the early 14th century, painting followed suit, with greater refinement and more realistic perspective, leaving behind much but not all of the previously widespread perspective distortion. As we see from the examples in these articles, the Romanesque style continued alongside the Gothic rather than completely replacing it.

We began this article with the question: are medieval images reliable representations of reality? Given what I have described and shown so far – simplification, deliberate disproportion, symbolic colours, symbolic beings such as angels, demons, spirits and onocentaurs – it may be a surprise to now make the case for realism in medieval art, a degree of realism which gives us valuable information about musical instruments. To make this claim, I need to make the case with examples and define precisely what I mean by realism.

We have focussed so far on religious symbolism in medieval art. While this is central for understanding the approach of medieval artists to representation and figure drawing, there was other art which depicted everyday scenes of domesticity, wildlife, music-making, and so on, in realistic ways.

For our first examples we turn to farming iconography. Some farming implements and practices have not survived in written records or archaeological finds, but we can see them depicted in art. A rich source is the English Luttrell Psalter of 1325–40 (British Library, Add MS 42130), commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276–1345) of Irnham, Lincolnshire.

At the foot of folios 170r to 173v there are eight sequential scenes depicting the annual crop cycle. We will briefly examine the first three.

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On folio 170r (above) we see a ploughman and his assistant dressed for the cold weather – several layers, hood up, hat and gloves on – as ploughing is done in January. There are two pairs of oxen yoked to the plough. Since the ploughman needs both hands to steer, the role of the other farmhand is to keep the oxen moving forward with his whip, while watching the ploughman in case he needs to stop. The plough, which is shown in detail, implies one reason the ploughman would need to stop: a mallet is inserted into a drilled hole, ready to break up any clogged soil which would prevent forward motion.

The folios follow the tasks chronologically. After ploughing on folio 170r comes sowing on folio 170v (above). Again we see warm clothes against the winter cold. The sower has taken off his right glove and tucked it in his belt, the better to feel the seed in his broadcasting hand. The seed is carried in a four-sided basket, secured by a thick roped cord around his neck. When the basket has been emptied, fresh supplies of seed are fetched from the sack on the left, which has the attention of a rook or crow, taking the opportunity to feed while the sower’s dog chases away another bird on the right.

Next, as we see on folio 171r (above), a horse-drawn harrow creates a layer of soil to protect the seed. Like the plough, the mechanics of the harrow can be seen from the illustration, but only because the artist has used perspective distortion to aid the viewer. One farmhand leads the horse. Another has created a pouch in his tunic to hold stones ready for his slingshot to scare away the birds which would otherwise eat the seed.

While all the figures are drawn simply in the typical medieval style, we see a great deal of detail that accurately reflects life, real farming practices from Sir Geoffrey Luttrell’s estate, real objects depicted in detail, and in this way we can say the images are realistic: they accurately reflect farming practice.

Another example of iconography giving valuable information about farming appears in The Gorleston Psalter, 1310–24 (British Library, Add MS 49622). Folios 21v and 79r (below) show two pigs looking at an oak tree. The artistic method is key to understanding how medieval art relates to reality. The artist picked out the key features of the oak tree – its distinctively-shaped leaves and its acorns – and magnified them in size so that the viewer instantly recognises it as an oak tree. Every detail of the tree is not shown and the proportions are distorted, so in that sense it is not a realistic oak tree; but nonetheless the viewer instantly recognises the leaf shape and the acorns as facsimiles of reality, as intended by the artist. Another perspective distortion is seen in that, taken literally, the acorns are easily within reach, so the pigs could just take and eat them. As in some of the examples above, we must understand the scale artistically rather than literally: if the tree and pigs were drawn in realistic proportion on the page, the pigs would be a lost detail in relation to the tree. In actuality, the pigs are looking at the tree because the acorns are too high to reach. The key point is that the artist distorts proportion with a purpose: to bring key details to the attention of the viewer, and those key details are rooted in reality.

On folios 142v and 154r (below), we see the vital role of the swineherd: he uses a stick to beat the tree and release the acorns for the pigs to eat. This is a scene repeated in many medieval sources, almost all of them pictorial rather than literary: iconography has a vital role in imparting factual information.

Dolly Jørgensen (2015) has surveyed hundreds of medieval images of swineherd, and observes that he is always shown carrying or using a stick, with one exception of an image of a swineherd being paid. Taking swineherd iconography as a whole, the stick has three functions: knocking down acorns, by far the most common use; to direct the pigs; or to rest on. The 13th century scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus commented on swineherd iconography in his De Proprietatibus Rerum (On The Properties of Things), c. 1250, stating that, because November is the month for fattening swine, it is illustrated with a rustic beating an oak.

Another example of the image is found in The Hours of Charles of Angoulême, France, 1480–96 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 1173). On folio 5v (below), we see two swineherd, male and female, the man using his stick to beat down the acorns. Again we see the oak trees depicted smaller than scale, and again we see the integrity of the image: while the iconography is subject to artistic conventions, it nonetheless illustrates the real.

Now to test the veracity of medieval iconography with an artistically more difficult topic: differentiating between species of birds, for which we have present-day birds to compare with the art. In some medieval manuscripts, birds are depicted with anatomically accurate details. In the Anglo-Norman Howard Psalter, c. 1308–40 (British Library, Arundel MS 83, folio 14r, below), there are a large number of birds and other animals in one place, but the artist has illustrated most of the birds the same shape, making the task of identification much more of a challenge. This is why I have picked this manuscipt: not because it is easy, but because it is difficult. Can the birds and other animals nonetheless be recognised and classified?

(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

To know that the medieval artist depicted individual species of birds realistically, rather than just drawing all-purpose generalised birds or differentiating them simply by making up fictitious coloured markings, we need a significant level of correlation between art and life. To help in the task, below is the image again, each creature numbered.

(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

Identifications are as follows.

1. Winged ox, symbol of Gospel writer Saint Luke.
2. Red squirrel. Easily identified by the shape and colour.
3. Two fallow deer, stag and doe. Identified by the shape and feint spotted back of the male. Compared to reality, the male’s neck is drawn too thin and the antlers should be flattened into wider plates at the top. Otherwise, visually distinguishable from roe and red deer (and sika were neither in France nor Britain in the 14th century).
4. Eurasian jay. Dappled markings on head, blue stripes on wing, black moustache.

5. Owl. Most likely barn owl, given the colour and the markings. Barn owls are used in agriculture to control pests.
6. Another Eurasian jay, as 4.
7a and 7b. Rabbit hiding and rabbit in the open.

8. Two doves. The one on the right is carrying a symbolic olive branch in its beak, reminding the viewer of Genesis 8: 11: “When the dove returned to him [Noah in the ark] in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf. Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth.”
9. Unidentified. The blue head might indicate a jay, but the folded wing doesn’t have the expected marks and the extended wing has an underside wing bar, unlike jays.
10. Goldfinch. Red round the bill and head, black cap behind the red and white cheeks, black wing bars separated by yellow marking, mainly black tail.
11. Stonechat, male. Black head, white collar, orange chest, black tail.

12. Great tit. Black head with white cheeks, yellow chest, black and white wings.
13. Uncertain. Colours and markings somewhat resemble a stock dove, but the shape and bill are wrong. If we add black marking behind the eye then all other colouring resembles a wheatear.
14. Green woodpecker, male. Red and black head, green wing with black and white edge.
15. Grey wagtail, male. Long tail, grey back, yellow and white chest, grey and white head.
16. Magpie. Large, white beak, distinctive black and white markings.
17. Winged lion, symbol of Gospel writer Saint Mark.

(Many thanks to Elaine Cartwright, David Jarratt-Knock and Annette Jarratt-Knock for their identifications.)

One significant aspect of this scene is that all these birds can be seen on or around agricultural land. This theme is reinforced by the presence of fallow deer, a red squirrel, a barn owl and rabbits and, coupled with the viewer’s ability to recognise distinct species, the logical conclusion is that the artist based depictions on real life observations. Even with the highly stylised and simplified representation and the limitations of this particular artist, there is still a clear relationship between iconography and reality: of 15 real creatures and 2 symbolic hybrids, 15 can be securely identified, with only 1 uncertain and 1 unidentified.

William Brunsdon Yapp OBE (1909–90) was senior lecturer in zoology at the University of Birmingham, and chairman of the research committee of the West Midland Bird Club. In his survey, Birds in captivity in the Middle Ages (1982), he noted that there had been no modern study of captive birds in the middle ages. He therefore conducted his own, looking at the “vast mass of medieval literature both in Latin and the vernacular that one ought to comb for information”. He “systematically studied the representations of birds in English medieval manuscripts” and was “struck by the often high standards of colouring and sometimes of jizz [total combined characteristics which identify a bird or plant species], which suggest drawing from life”.

Implications for medieval music iconography

Such is the relationship of iconography to reality that a modern person can view art in 14th century manuscripts to glean practical information about farming practices and clearly identify bird and deer species. The same result would have been reached with myriad other examples comparing iconography with reality. Similarly, symbolic art comprises easily identifiable elements of the real: in the examples given above, we have no problem recognising the bat’s wings and ram’s horns of a hybrid demon, the fiery cauldron in hell, or the lower-half ass and upper-half human of the onocentaur.

When applied to music iconography, this can lead to only one conclusion: medieval iconography is a credible source of information. Indeed, the level of agreement about the features of various musical instruments in medieval iconography, across time and geography, testifies to its overall reliability.

As examples, if we take the instruments in the video which begins this article (that video can also be accessed by clicking here), study of iconography reveals the following developments.

The European lute developed from the Arabian oud, becoming a distinct 4 course fretless instrument in the early 14th century. At the turn of the 15th century, we begin to see fretted lutes in iconography, and tied gut frets quickly became the norm. In the second decade of the 15th century, we begin to see the introduction of a 5th course, with 4 course lutes continuing to appear for many decades. Two examples of iconographical sources from which this information can be gathered are above. Top right we see a detailed depiction of a 4 course lute in the final years of being unfretted: Ottaviano Nelli, Madonna del Belvedere, 1403, Church of Santa Maria Nuova, Gubbio, Italy. Top left and in detail underneath we see a fretted lute, and perhaps the earliest depiction showing 5 courses: Giacomo Jaquerio, a fresco of 1410–15 originally in Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, Chapel of the Maccabees, now in Musée d’art et d’histoire, Geneva, Switzerland. A third visual source is below: a very early fretted lute in the anonymous Coronation of the Virgin, painted in the north transept behind the altar of Saint Michael in Cremona Cathedral, Italy, 1400. Significantly, this earliest-known fretted lute is triple fretted, the only purpose of which is to make the strings buzz or bray, the same aesthetic as the bray harp. This type of bray lute and bray harp are both heard in the video which begins this article (which can also be viewed by clicking here). To read and hear more of the ‘bray lute’, click here.

(As with all images, click for a larger view.)
Photograph on the right © Ian Pittaway.

The citole was popular in Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries, regularly in evidence in iconography and in written accounts. Iconographical references had ceased by 1400, and written references in the 15th century often appear to refer to an instrument of the past. Above left we see a citole depicted in its heyday in the Anglo-Norman De Lisle Psalter, c. 1308–40 (British Library, Arundel MS 83 II, folio 134v). Above right we see the citole in the minstrels’ window of Lincoln Cathedral, 1385, and below in the Petites heures de Jean de Berry, 1375–90 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 18014, folio 53r on the left, folio 48v on the right), both when its appearance was becoming less common.

To trace the demise of the citole as a popular instrument in the late 14th century, it is helpful to cross-reference iconography with written accounts (the importance of which is outlined in the second article). English documents listing rent or tax include the names Johannes Sitoler in Dunolm, c. 1377–80, Johannes Soutolyer in Heton, 1379, and Henry Sitoler, Chichester, 1380. All these names lack the definite article to indicate that they were citole players rather than Sitoler and its variants being surnames. However, two factors indicate that it is credible to assume they were citole-playing musicians. The first is that the definite article was not used universally: for example, the fee for musical services to John Sitoler, 1361, lacks it. Second, the citole player in the minstrels’ window of Lincoln Cathedral is dated 1385, later than all the citolers in documents, indicating that the citole was still played in England towards the end of the 14th century. The latest surviving date of a payment to a European citoler appears after citole iconography had ceased: 1412–13, a fee paid to Arnaut Guillem de Ursúa in the royal court of Navarre, Iberia.

Both iconography and surviving instruments attest to the earliest harps being open harps, i.e. without a forepillar, with a distinct triangular shape. The earliest surviving image of an English harp is dated c. 1000, above left, from page 54 of Bodleian Library MS Junius 11 (formerly known as the Cædmon manuscript), and it shows both a forepillar and a move away from the strictly triangular shape.

Iconography shows that from the 11th century on, curves on the forepillar and neck would characterise the shapes of European harps. By the early 13th century, all European harps were pillar harps, open harps now having become absent from iconography. As we see above right, this style of harp continued into the 14th century, as illustrated in the English Luttrell Psalter, 1325–40 (British Library, Add MS 42130, folio 174v).

Iconography attests that in the early 15th century the shape of the harp changed, with a taller forepillar and a sweeping horn-like curve. This shape was later called the Gothic harp, and we see it in Han Memlings’ painting on the right: Madonna and Child with angels, after 1479 (National Gallery of Art, Maryland, USA).

First attested in art in 1367–85 in Cathédrale Saint Julien du Mans, France, L-shape pins began to be added at the base of the strings, turned so that the strings vibrate against them: this is the bray harp, ubiquitous in most western European countries from the early 15th century until the 17th century. Bray pins are seen in Hans Memling’s painting on the right: click on the picture to see it in a new window, click on the picture in the new window to enlarge.

The gittern was popular in Europe from the 13th to the end of the 15th century. As we see from iconography, it was strung with single, double or triple courses, and with 2(?), 3, 4 and latterly 5 courses. The 4 course gittern above is in Cappella di San Martino (Chapel of Saint Martin), Assisi, Italy, painted by Simone Martini in 1312–18. It is such a complete depiction that we can see, among other details, that it is strung entirely in octave courses and with reddish strings. A reconstruction of this particular instrument is the subject of the third and final article.

From the depicted to the real

We have seen that medieval art has the potential to yield credible information about the organology (form, structure, development, function) of a musical instrument, but it is not possible to take everything we see literally, due to perspective distortion, details exaggerated and reduced, and symbolic elements. With precise measurements unavailable, how can a researcher or a luthier resolve the question of accuracy?

That is the subject of the second article, suggesting 10 principles to work by; then the third article puts these principles into practice with the recreation of the Martini gittern in the Cappella di San Martino fresco. The organological and musical results of the instrument produced could only have been reconstructed from information gained by a study of iconography.



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